Thursday, February 5, 2015

Movie Churches: Oscar Division -- Boyhood and American Sniper, too -- 2014

 The odds on favorite to win Best Picture this year is "Boyhood" directed by Richard Linklater (though it could be "Birdman"). And if it does win, it'll be fine with me. Linklater took a unique approach to this story of a boy's growing up, filming over 12 years, so we actually see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow up, from kindergarten to college.

But this column isn't about movies, of course, it's about churches in movies. And of the 165 minutes of this film, a minute of it is spent in a church, more time than any of the Best Picture nominees (excepting "Selma") spend in a church.

From the beginning of "Boyhood," Mason's parents are divorced. Later in the film, Mason's father remarries, to a younger woman. As part of a birthday celebration for Mason, his father takes him to his in-laws' house out in the country. It should be mentioned, it's out in the country in Texas.
Mason's step-grandmother (is that a term?) bakes him a cake. She also gives him a Bible with his name engraved on it. His step-grandfather gives him a shotgun. I saw the film in two places; with my daughter in Manhattan and with my wife and son in California Wine Country. In both places, both gifts got good laughs. It did make me wonder if people laughed as hard in Red States. (A Bible, one of the major building blocks of Western culture, even if you don't believe it is the Word of God, is a real laugh getter as a gift. And as a teen, I sure wouldn't have minded a shotgun.)

The grandparents are clearly Christians, with crosses on the wall. But they are not the stereotypical prudish scolds that Hollywood often presents. They are warm and loving, and when Mason, his father, step mother and sister join in singing a song that's a tad off color, the grandparents laugh good naturedly. I can't help but wonder if the more sympathetic view of these church goers comes from the fact that writer-director Richard Linklater is a native Texan who has never moved to Hollywood. He's continued throughout his career (since 1991 with "Slacker") to make many of his films in Texas.

The next day, the family goes to church. We never see what kind of church it is (in that one minute of screen time) but we do hear the pastor preaching from John 20 about the Resurrection, offering hope for all. The bit of sermon we hear is certainly orthodox. The church is probably part of some kind of mainline denomination, because they practice child baptism.

Mason's father (played by Ethan Hawke), with a bit of embarrassment, tells Mason and his sister that their baby half-brother is going to be baptized. He explains it's important to their step-mother, who is a Christian. Mason and his sister, Samantha (played very well by director Linklater's daughter, Lorelei) tease their father about becoming religious. He laughs it off, but he certainly seems to be becoming a better man, married to his Christian wife.

In fact, compared to the other characters in the film, the Christian characters (Mason's father's wife and in-laws) seem to be the most stable and joyous characters in the film. Mason's mother, in contrast, has put her all into her children, and when they leave home, she's lost meaning in her life. Mason's step-grandparents seem to be living for a lot more, secure in their faith, values and their God. I'd certainly consider going to their church. So, the Mystery Church of "Boyhood" gets a thumbs up from me.

The church scene in "American Sniper" is even shorter. Young Chris Kyle (who will grow up to be the U.S. Military's most effective and deadly sniper) is seen with his family in a church service. The pastor is talking about the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul and judgment, but it's tough to get much out of it. Though I'm usually willing to work with the most meager of information, I can't give the church an up or down.

While at church, young Chris takes home one of the Bibles, which he keeps with him when he grows, taking it on his tours of duty in Iraq. In reviews, I've seen this incident referred to as a theft.  But most churches I know wouldn't really mind someone taking a church Bible for their own use. (I know the Gideons don't mind people taking motel Bibles and are happy to replace them free of charge.)

There is also a clergy reference in the film. One of Kyle's buddies in Iraq mentions he'd gone to seminary, but what kept him out of ministry was his love for gambling, particularly dice. Kyle says he'd like going to a church like that. Good on Kyle's buddy for discerning that the pulpit and the craps table are not compatible furniture (according to the "not being a lover of money" clause on the requirements of elders clause in I Timothy 3:3).

"Boyhood" is rated R for language (including sexual references) and for teen drug and alcohol use. "American Sniper" is rated R for strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout (including some sexual references).

-- Dean